Online Journal 1: Reflection on Jess Santiago’s Poem

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

To my surprise, upon reading Jess Santiago’s poem entitled “Kung Ang Tula ay Isa Lamang”, the lines above from Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, came into mind. What’s in a name? If Romeo wasn’t a Montague, perhaps he and Juliet could have met a better end. Romeo, after all, would still be himself — personality and whatever else Juliet saw in him — even if he weren’t given the Montague name.

With that, I would say that one’s value is in the soul and not in the name. So, alternatively, what’s in a poem? Is it sufficient to say that anything with the label, “poem” slapped onto it is a poem, or is there anything else needed? If the content is the part of importance, then what exactly do creative writings need to have? What must these writings do to their readers? What must the soul of a poem be like?

Jess Santiago’s poem offers an interesting answer to this question. Multiple interpretations are acceptable, of course, but my personal takeaway from the poem is that a creative piece must speak for its subject. A creative piece, like what Santiago mentions, must not merely be a group of words. It must instill action into readers unfamiliar with the subject or must be able to give strength to those who are weakened by a system or a greater force. A writer, may they be a respected one or one of the unknowns, must have words of substance and meaning.

Santiago parallels the answer to this question with a situation. With lines such as “nanaisin ko pang ako’y bigyan ng isang taling kangkong” or “pagkat ako’y nagugutom at ang bituka’y walang ilong, walang mata”, I was able to imagine a scenario: a scenario in which a person prejudiced by the system is given a poem. If a person with a huge platform does not speak a word about the prejudiced at a time of crisis, then simply put, what is the use of their platform? As Santiago puts it, a starving man would rather receive food than a meaningless poem that does not help his cause.

Of course, one can use their platform in any way they please. Some would even argue that mentioning world issues is not an obligation. But on the topic of writers, where do our duties lie?

In a time of oppression and crisis in which the powerless do not have a voice, I believe that the duty of a writer (in this case, a poet) is to be their voice. I think a writer’s words should provide comfort to those who are lost or hope to those who are brought down by a system. I think creative writers are here to show the truth on these subjects, as we are freer to do so. Our SH-HUM 3 subject’s recent reading, “Literature in the Time of Tokhang” by The Kill List Chronicles, is something that comes into my mind as I think of what a writer’s duty truly is. They mention that, yes, journalists covering real-life situations during these times are present, but they also mention that the writers of fiction are still of importance. They say that we write about the “complex truth” to which I agree.

If our poems were only words grouped together, where would that bring us? Instead, imagine if we wrote a piece about the prejudiced who slowly rise to overcome the system looming over them. This type of piece, although only a glimpse of what could be, can give hope. This type of piece can open people’s eyes and turn the heads of those who wish to ignore the problems within a society. That, in my opinion, is where our duties as writers lie.

Santiago puts us in the shoes of a starved person in poverty, whose empty stomach cannot consume empty words. It’s interesting as the person in question mentions, “Malaon nang pinamanhid ng dalita ang panlasa” and proceeds to make a request to the revered the poets of our country. Long has his poverty numbed his taste. In my interpretation, he may be talking of his taste buds being numb from eating the same food every day, or his taste in content such as literature may not be “picky” or “choosy” as he is concerned with his quality of life more than anything. He would rather consume the tangible than words that do not promise hope, or words with empty promises. But even so, he has one request: for the writers of this country to write a piece that will leave a mark on history — a piece that will serve as a stand for those who are in need.

Once more, this poem can be interpreted in multiple ways. After all, people often do say that the author is “dead”. But with what I think a writer’s duty is, this is what I think Santiago may be trying to say. With strong words and a tame use of imagery, Jess Santiago’s poem “Kung Ang Tula ay Isa Lamang” can give insight to what the creative writers of our country should have to offer for ourselves and the society.

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aimlessly walking forward, dreams in hand.

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